Growing up with emotionally immature parents can leave children feeling unseen and unheard. They may also find it difficult to fully express their own emotions.
Emotional maturity is defined in psychology as the ability to control and express your emotions at an appropriate level, based on the circumstances.
Emotional immaturity is the opposite. It’s a persistent pattern of lack of awareness and insight about your emotions and how they impact others. It can cause you to appear uncaring or self-absorbed.
In emotionally immature parents, a lack of emotional maturity can have long-term effects on children and could lead to emotional neglect or insecure attachment style.
Emotional maturity allows parents to shift their focus from themselves to how their reactions, behaviors, and emotional expression affect their children.
Emotionally immature parents aren’t always able to recognize and acknowledge their children’s emotions. According to Dr. Laura Louis, a licensed psychologist from Marietta, Georgia, this can lead to unintentional neglect.
1. Emotional reactivity
Emotional reactivity is the intensity with which you respond to emotions. High emotional reactivity is a sign of poor emotional regulation and involves intense shifts in your emotional responses.
In parenthood, it can look like extreme emotional reactions to minor inconveniences, quickly shifting from one mood to another, or reacting to emotions without thought.
Examples of high emotional reactivity in parents include:
- extreme emotional outbursts
- throwing tantrums when a child doesn’t respond as desired
- threatening or punishing children for displaying emotions
- relying on children for adult emotional support
- being unpredictable in your emotional responses
High emotional reactivity can make children feel unsafe to express emotions.
2. Emotional unavailability
Sometimes emotional immaturity in parents looks like emotional unavailability. This can come through in behaviors that seem aloof, disinterested, or unconcerned with a child’s needs.
Chadley Zobolas, a licensed clinical social worker from Denver, Colorado, gives the example of responding to an upset child with “it could be so much worse.”
“This response inadvertently tells children that their experiences aren’t ‘bad enough’ to feel emotions about, and/or that their body’s natural emotional experience is wrong, selfish, and something to feel shameful about,” she says.
Emotionally unavailable parents may also:
- never demonstrate or verbally express affection
- only offer criticism
- avoid offering comfort when a child is upset
- prioritize personal needs
- avoid open communication
- not show support for a child’s interests or activities
- lie about their feelings
Emotionally immature parents who are unavailable emotionally can leave children feeling insecure, anxious, and unable to express themselves emotionally.
3. Lack of empathy
Overall, many of the characteristics seen in emotional immaturity are related to a lack of empathy. Empathy is your ability to relate to the experiences, emotions, and thoughts of other people.
When you can’t connect through a shared interpersonal experience, you’re unable to recognize how your emotions impact those around you.
Lack of empathy can influence emotional reactivity and emotional withdrawal. It can also contribute to behaviors of emotionally immature parents, such as:
- personal boundary-crossing
- insensitive comments
- making impulsive decisions that involve children without regard to their wants or needs
Zobolas cautions against viewing emotional immaturity in your parents as a character flaw.
“Instead,” she says, “it’s an indicator that the parent didn’t get their own emotional and attachment needs met when they were growing up. Whether good or bad, we’re all influenced by our past experiences and can only do better when we know better.”
Keeping this compassion in mind, it’s possible to improve your relationship dynamic with emotionally immature parents. Zobolas and Louis recommend:
- setting and enforcing personal boundaries
- disengaging from parents when necessary
- clearly communicating your thoughts and feelings, regardless of their response
It’s always OK to seek professional support.
“Although the power dynamic and past emotional abuse can complicate such interactions, attending therapy and personal growth are effective avenues for adult children to develop the language and skills needed to set and maintain boundaries with their parents,” Louis says.
Not all emotionally immature parents neglect their children. Like many concepts in psychology, emotional maturity exists on a spectrum, and some parents may be more or less emotionally mature than others.
In some circumstances, emotional immaturity in parents can cause challenges with attachment style. Children may learn from their caregivers that expressing emotions is undesirable or unsafe, and those lessons can follow them into adulthood.
If you grew up with emotionally immature parents, therapy can help. A mental health professional can work with you on engaging and recognizing your own emotions and can help you learn how to establish boundaries and communication with your parents.